Adaptive Leadership: Pillar of Global Leadership And Innovation

May 2012, by So-Young Kang

What is “Adaptive Leadership”?

I define ‘adaptive leadership’ as the ability to exercise influence and bring out potential in others regardless of the context and typically outside their comfort zone. This includes enabling others in organizations to develop, innovate, and perform. I believe it requires at least 4 mindsets and capabilities: 1) cultural adaptability, 2) flexibility to change, 3) embrace of mystery and 4) willingness to painful adaptation and discomfort.

1) Cultural adaptability is a prerequisite for growing businesses globally and unfortunately, many hold on to various myths about being cultural adaptable. I used to think that speaking 3 languages and having traveled to 30 countries meant I was culturally adaptable and was shocked to learn that I was only a level 3 (“Am I Culturally Adaptable?”). According to Dr. Mitch Hammer who created the Intercultural Development Inventory, there are 5 levels of cultural adaptability and the majority of individuals and organizations operate at level 3 – minimization which focuses on similarity and universalism. They are systematically designed to “treat everyone the same.” This level of cultural adaptability minimizes differences and does not fully embrace cultural differences and perspectives so the unique strengths of individuals in this model are often not fully realized. The good news is that you can increase your Cultural Quotient (CQ) and your adaptability which is a journey I personally embarked on a few years ago.

2) Flexibility and openness to change is a mindset and posture from which individuals choose to see their environments. It is a demonstrated willingness to adjust and shift positions, views, decisions and behaviors in light of new information. It is also the ability to make the necessary adjustments which could include shifts in decisions you make as you lead (e.g., strategy, markets, business models, people, geography), shifts in how you interact with those different to you (e.g., communication styles, modes) and shifts in behavior (e.g., use of questions vs. telling, not being as reactive). Flexibility to change is not to be equated with ‘switching with the wind’ and is more about a willingness to ‘be like water’ which is always H2O but adjusts in form depending on the context.

Source: Sang-Taek Oh, PRS2-001  JUMP 2008, Art Angel Company

3) Embrace of mystery is about being okay with not always understanding and having the answers. It is about accepting situations that are ambiguous and having the discernment to know when to move forward. It requires the ability to think creatively and develop solutions in uncertain environments.  When leaders do not ‘embrace mystery’ when required, there can be a significant cost to organizations who get exhausted trying to provide facts and data for situations that cannot be known.

Source: So-Hee Cho, Art Angel Company

4) Willingness to painful adaptation and discomfort is a mouthful and sounds a bit counter-intuitive. Who would willingly choose pain and discomfort? Actually, many adaptive leaders intentionally choose situations that may not be easy if they feel it may lead to a better outcome. They embrace uncomfortable situations and are willing to take these risks. We have assessed several leaders who have made decisions to move to new countries, take on uncomfortable roles on uncertain terms and have made decisions that were physically unpleasant in the short-term to achieve a larger purpose (e.g., personal growth, company investment). These leaders do not choose the ‘easy way out’ and often will not pursue the seemingly most straightforward path. They tend to enjoy the journey.

Let’s take an example of a company who has excelled in this area of ‘Adaptive Leadership.’ We had the joy of interviewing one of the most senior executives of Citibank when it was trying to grow and establish a stronger foothold in India in the ‘90s. Today, Citibank is the single largest foreign direct investor in the financial services industry in India with ~$4 billion in capital and known as “employer of choice” to almost 8,000 people. How did they succeed? There were a few non-negotiables when this executive went to India where corruption was a challenge many businesses were (and continue to) facing. The 2 non-negotiable values set by Citibank’s leadership was 1) ethical behavior at all times and 2) accountability for your own actions. Both of these concepts were very new to India and challenging given dominant culture of hierarchy and rampant practice of bribery. Specifically, Citibank did a few things differently in order to build its presence.

1) Innovated given lack of available resources. They had to ask a different set of questions when they started. They ‘embraced the mystery’ of being in a new place and started with questions, not answers. They started with “What’s available in India vs. how do we sell them our products?” For example, they wanted to provide consumer loans but there was no system of checking credit so they set up a network of local qualified CPAs to conduct credit checks.

2) Invested in long-term despite initial losses. Management had the mindset and willingness to take risks which had financial impacts to their bottom line. They were willing to go through “painful adaptation” during the early years to learn from their mistakes, innovate and adapt.

3) Hired and developed local leaders to provide oversight. They recognized that it’s much easier to teach local talent Citibank’s culture than teaching foreigners the subtlety of Indian culture. They sent this Indian-born, America-trained executive with deep cultural understanding to lead this effort recognizing the importance of cultural adaptability beyond the ‘minimization phase.’

I believe that Citibank’s success in India was largely driven by the strength of “Adaptive Leadership” in its people, mindsets, strategies and ultimately the decisions they made.

Some of these mindsets are extremely difficult to change for individuals and even more challenging for teams and organizations. Most people are uncomfortable with change. However, if we are first to be and then to develop globally-minded leaders, this is a critical part of the journey. Good news is that if we have the humility and willingness to learn, we can… And we will grow as adaptive leaders.

Are you ready to continue your journey to ‘Adaptive Leadership’?

*Special acknowledgment to Dave Gibbons, Xealot and Advisor, who has been a wonderful thought partner on this topic. If you are interested in assessing your level of cultural adaptability or developing capabilities in this area, we would be honored to walk with you on your journey. Please contact us at